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Museums & Truth. The Truth is, there is More Than one Truth!

Today’s art museums and historic sites are more than places to preserve the art, artifacts and memories of the past. They are the new town square where the diverse members of the community can come together and consider issues against the backdrop of culture and history. In order to do this inclusively, we need to overcome a millennium of cultural bias.

Can museums evolve?  We have begun this process by instituting multicultural acquisition campaigns, diversifying our boards and staff, and searching the records for lost stories of multicultural heroism and creativity. These efforts cannot reverse centuries of cultural selectivity. However, if we can find new and meaningful ways to approach storytelling, we can forge a future that celebrates diversity.

truth and museums

Seeing with New Eyes

I propose that Maya Angelou was right, when she said, “The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” Change of this kind involves ripping up the macadam and blazing a new trail one marker at a time.  To do this we have to approach our narratives with new eyes.

The inherent problem in traditional western storytelling is that we are assuming the role of “author”. Historically, we have controlled the path of the story. We select the protagonist, designate who or what is important, determine the plot points, develop the characters, and assign significance to the material being shared.  As “authorities” we are presenting this material to the public as something “true,” and in doing so, dictating what is of value.

Break Down Bias

This approach has resulted in a stereotypical museum culture which focuses on collecting and showcasing the stories, successes, and works of the white male in society.  Though not the result of a physical battle, our museums have become a metaphor for Winston Churchill’s quote, “History is written by the victors.”  We have been celebrating the story of the victor for hundreds if not thousands of years, and it is only in recent times that we have allowed that there are a wealth of stories which have been lost amidst promoting this value system.

If we are going to break down these biases, we have to start by accepting a new truth.  This truth is that there is more than one truth. You can give 10 people the same facts and ask them to tell a story.  Each person’s story will be different. The stories will be infused with that person’s perspective, their cultural biases, and their personal baggage. Only by recognizing the value of each of these perspectives and accepting other viewpoints can we move toward a more multicultural experience.

Collaborative Storytelling…It takes a Village

How can we, as Museum professionals, start this process? I propose we use what I call Collaborative Storytelling, to overcome our cultural biases and blind spots.  Whether we are designing an exhibit, a program, or a performance, we need to bring other voices to the table. We need to enlist stakeholders in the earliest phases of our content development—not just experts in the field—but also members of the public.  These can be people who have a part in the story we’re telling, or they can represent voices from the audience we are hoping to reach.   Together we can grapple with the main theme that underlines our efforts…the Big Idea.

Assumption Busting 

So ask yourself, who are your stakeholders? Invite them to the table. Create an Advisory Committee. Host a focus group. Take the pulse of the multicultural community.  Does your Big Idea resonate with your stakeholders? Does it mean the same thing for them as it does for you? Are there perspectives that you haven’t considered? As you go through these sessions, your goal is to peel away the layers of cultural bias around your Big Idea.

You are not trying to sell your Big Idea. You should be doing more listening than talking in these meetings. You may find that your Big Idea does not resonate with the group you are hoping to reach. You may find that the topics which are important to you are different than those important to the people sitting at the table. You may realize that there are lessons to learn that you never considered. As you review the materials and proposed themes, the Big Idea will likely be amended or completely revised.

Step One: Root out your Assumptions

Once you have consensus on the Big Idea, the next step is to work together to root out your assumptions. Host a brainstorming session and leverage the knowledge of your diverse stakeholders. Evaluate your resources. Ask who are the people that are important to the story? Is everyone’s role accounted for? Are there perspectives you are not considering? Are there new resources you need to bring to the table? What information do you think your visitors will have before they come to your program/exhibit/event? Is there background information that they may need that you are not anticipating?

Step Two: Assess the Mood

The next step is to work with your stakeholders to prepare for the challenges that might arise when you introduce these topics to the greater community. Are there difficult subjects these topics address?  What are the issues visitors are likely to raise? What are the positive and negative emotions that you might evoke in your audience? What questions, concerns or commentary might be shared? How can you encourage discussions in a productive rather than a destructive manner? If you prepare for these questions and concerns, if you train your docents and staff for their eventuality, your visitor experience will be enhanced.  Make sure you prepare for how to respond respectfully to the unexpected question, concern or emotional moment.

Step Three: Include the Voice of your Visitor

The best way to maximize your story’s impact is to engage your visitor in the Collaborative Storytelling effort. Not only do you need to convey a multiplicity of truths to your audience, but you have to do it in a way that allows them to include their own truth. How can you draw the audience into the story? How can you strengthen empathy? How can you encourage conversation which deepens both your audience’s understanding and your own as well?

Share the Storytelling Responsibilities with your Visitors

I offer five storytelling devices for encouraging your visitors to be a part of your Collaborative Storytelling efforts.

Tap into the Senses

We want our visitors to connect with our story.  We connect through our senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste and Touch) so our story should be designed to emphasize them.  The important thing in this effort is pairing the sensory experience with an essential concept in your story.

For instance, if I asked each person reading this article to think of a smell that reminded them of home, they would each imagine a different smell.  Mine for instance is of lilacs. When the lilac hedge next to my childhood home was in full bloom, I cheered because I knew summer was just around the corner. Now when I smell lilacs, for a moment I feel like an excited child again. Positive or negative, familiar or foreign, whenever you encounter a smell, it comes with memories and emotions that can compel you, or in this case your visitor, to engage more deeply with your story.

Reveal Role Play Fundamentals

We want to employ multiple truths.  We need to find opportunities for our visitors to explore other perspectives.  We want our audience to be able to step into another person’s shoes and walk around a bit.  The important thing in this effort is that you are asking your visitor to take an action or make a choice to engage more deeply.  They can just read the panel or they can participate. The first will give them only information. The second just might give them deeper buy-in to your story.

Think of it like a political election. Initially, you read about your candidates, listen to their speeches and debates. Maybe you learn something new, maybe you don’t. It is only if you select a candidate you want to vote for that you truly engage.  At a minimum you show your support by voting.  Maybe you donate to the campaign.  If your candidate wins and does well in office, you feel as if you too have won and that your vote counted.  You will likely feel connected to this candidate beyond the campaign, throughout his or her term. By opting in, the voter, or in our case the visitor, begins to weave the broader story into their own story.

Unearth Common Ground

We all share basic needs underneath the layers of culture, religion and community.  We have physiological needs (eat, sleep, shelter).  We have a need to feel safe and secure. We have a need to form our own identity.  We have a need to connect and belong. We have a need for recognition.  The important thing to do when you are unearthing common ground is to tap into these simple needs. If your visitor can relate to this need, it will serve as the key to understanding another’s truth: no matter how different it is to their own.

Imagine your story is a locked safe. There is precious information inside, but not only does your visitor have no idea how to access it, they may not even be interested in seeing its contents.  In some cases they might be downright afraid to open it.  The right key opens the barriers between the visitor and the content.

Talk through the Biases

Even with the barriers down, the visitor will continue to be weighing their own knowledge and their life experiences against the information and experience they are absorbing from your story.  They will keep trying to determine what the truth is.  Our job is to encourage discussion in the form of an internal or external dialogue that offers the opportunity to compare and contrast multiple truths.

Imagine you are playing the game I spy with a car full of people.  If I saw a fox run in front of me and I say, “I spy with my little eye something that begins with “F.” The answer could be fox, but it could also be face, friend, fiend, fur, or four-footed animal.  If someone in the car was German they might say Fuchs. While none of these match the answer I am seeking, they are all true. This presents us with an opportunity to explore the multiplicity of answers given, where we might once have simply pressed the group until someone gave us the answer we sought.

Harness the Question

Our role is not to provide answers, it is to ask questions. Let the questions do the work. If we can do this, we can make the shift from author to collaborator. The story we share will encourage consideration and conversation long after the visitor has left the site.

The best way to leverage the question is to employ Socratic Questioning. We need to ask the visitor questions like: Have you ever been in a situation like this? How is this similar or different to your situation? How did you feel in that situation? How do you think others might feel? What actions did you take? What were the results of those actions? With each answer, our visitor is blazing his or her trail of discovery.

One Step at a Time

We may never be able to share the thousands of unrecorded acts of bravery, endurance and integrity by minorities; be they women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community. Nor will these efforts recreate the works of art, stories and songs which were not deemed valuable enough to preserve. However, if we make a strategic effort to bring new voices to the table, find meaningful ways to approach storytelling, we can begin to dispel cultural assumptions, and promote a new kind of narrative that peels back the layers of cultural bias.

About the author – Amy Hollander

Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field.  She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges.  She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.

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